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Posts Tagged ‘jobs’

If news happens, and there is no one there to report it, is it still news?

Sadly, this isn’t just some variation on the old metaphysical riddle about a tree and an empty forest. It’s becoming an increasingly real — maybe even troubling — question.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press, the 163 year-old granddaddy of independent news organizations, started letting people go. How many have been laid off is a bit unclear, and even their own account does not go beyond saying “an undisclosed number.”

Here in my part of the world, those layoffs mean that the AP’s Roanoke bureau — one reporter really — is no longer staffed, and may well be on the way to closing its doors. This comes on the heels of similar layoffs and cuts throughout our region, cuts replicated in communities across the country. Some of our media outlets now require reporters to take regular furlough days, as if news just doesn’t happen on those days.

In some ways, of course, this shift is almost invisible, since most solid local reporting has long gone the way of the dodo bird. In its place, we get slick “Seven On Your Side” and “Health Team Twelve” features, complete with dramatic theme music and not a whole lot of news value. Or worse, the “man on the street” stories, where solid and aggressive reporting is replaced by lurking in public thoroughfares and asking passersby what they think about a current hot topic. On the print side, we’re sure to see more and more wire service stories, though perhaps not from the AP.

I can’t blame media outlets for taking this route. With profits — particularly in the newspaper business — in a freefall, how could you not gravitate toward this kind of coverage, coverage that is easily produced and packaged as time and budgets dictate?

But who’s going to be doing the reporting? Brace yourself, because it may be you.

Okay, maybe not you, but someone like you … or me for that matter.

To my mind, one of the incredible things about the evolution of the web has been how it has transformed from a relatively static place where we went to seek information to a place where we increasingly seek and provide information. We build web sites, we blog, we tweet. We make our voices heard. And sometimes — the Hudson River plane crash being the prime example — we report the news, long before traditional media are anywhere near the story.

Of course this model isn’t necessarily very reliable … yet. It leaves way too much room for error, for bias, even for malice, I suppose. But surely the demand for solid credible real-time reporting will, at some point, give birth to a new model of journalism, one that is both profitable and built around current events, contemporary technologies, and communal interests.

Hope so anyway. I’d like a chance to blow the dust off my press pass from days gone by.

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Is it just me, or is anybody else feeling the boundaries of their personal and professional lives becoming more porous? My friends are my colleagues, my colleagues are my contacts, my contacts are my peers, my peers are my friends, and so on and so on. Smarter folks (like Julien Smith and Chris Brogan) call this the blending of social constructs, but no matter what you call it, I think it’s critical if you want to get anything out of social media.

Okay, scratch that — maybe not anything. After all, I suppose some folks find value in simply staying connected in these new ways. It’s kind of fun to know what my cousins in Atlanta are up to, and what my old high school friend did over the Fourth of July weekend. Either of those would certainly fall under the category of anything. But I like to get a bit more out of it, frankly.

Take Twitter, for example. I don’t follow a ton of people, but those I do follow are pretty interesting folks. All day long they are cluing me in to websites I should check out, pointing me to some new trend in my business or my profession in general, or guiding me to a pertinent news story. These folks aren’t selling anything. They are simply giving me a small 140 character window into what they are thinking at that moment, and since many of us are in similar businesses or professions, I often find these tiny windows surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps that’s because, like most folks, I tend to build my networks around similar interests, and so those networks are often rich with pertinent information.

True, my network sometimes tells me things that may not be so illuminating — at least not in a professional way (though I do reap great benefit from my friend Laura’s irrepressible optimism). Some of the folks I follow on Twitter, like comedian Tim Siedell, are simply good for a laugh at random moments throughout the day. And some of my Twitter feeds are straight up news. (For my money, there’s no better way to get on-the-spot news.)

But here’s what intrigues me — it all seems to add up somehow. This blended stream of incoming information seems to create something unlike anything else I’ve known. If it were all professional all the time, I’d process it with some corner of my brain that holds the “you-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-good-for-you” reflex. If it were all personal all the time, I’d process it with my “well-that’s-interesting-but-probably-not-particularly-useful” reflex. And in either case, I’d be missing out on something.

Also — lurkers, take note —  it’s worth pointing out that until you jump in, you quite likely won’t understand how this confluence works. That’s another matter I’ve been giving some thought to, and will be doing a presentation on at the fall College Communicators Association conference.

So thanks to all of you, my personafessional friends/colleagues/contacts/peers. Keep me posted.

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Okay, bear with me here: a couple of decades ago, I found myself standing on the banks of the Nantahala River at the tail end of a wet spring, getting ready to climb into a canoe. I’d only been canoeing a half-dozen times or so, mostly on flat water or slow, lazy rivers. In front of me, the water was moving faster than any I’d ever seen, sucking white foam into eddies behind mammoth rocks. From downstream came the noise of a thundering waterfall. My partner was waiting for me to climb in. I did, and he pushed us off. Immediately the canoe lurched forward, as if on a rail. The river grabbed us, and propelled us forward. We steered as best we could, but there was no turning back.

When I think about social networking, I’m reminded of that feeling. The river is moving fast, and many of us in the communication business are dipping our toes in the water. Some of us have already pushed off, and are being carried downstream, navigating with varying degrees of success. Others are still on the shore, wondering a) if we really want to go where the river will lead us, or b) where the heck we’re going to use for a paddle.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability in the air. We all know how much these kinds of networks have grown, and we’ve all seen evidence of how powerful they can be. So, of course we are all tempted to jump in. After all, how long can you stand there watching your competitors barrel past you?

But before you shove off, I think it’s worth remembering that while you can guide your canoe — often quite deftly — that doesn’t mean you can go anywhere you want in it. You can’t pick a spot directly across all that white water and say “There. That’s where I’m going.” It’s just not going to happen. The current is going to pull you downstream, whether you want to go there or not.

In the end, I think it’s just like me standing on the banks of the Nantahala all those years ago. At some point, you just have to push off, hang on, and go.


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I’m not here right now. Well, technically, I suppose I am here — here being a busy Panera Bread in a town about forty miles or so from my house. I’m waiting for my kids to finish up some lessons, something my wife and I both seem to do a lot. But I just checked my email to find a note from someone I freelance for, and that got me thinking about what I’ll need to do when I get home to get that project done, so really I’m there. Not here.

My phone is sitting on the table next to me because I expect my kids to be calling soon to tell me they are done. Once that happens I’ll be, well, there — that is in the car on the way to pick them up and get them home and get busy on that looming project. On the way home, I’ll probably remember something that I need to take care of in the office tomorrow and I’ll call and leave myself a message which will automatically go to my email which I’ll check first thing and then … it just goes on and on and on.

I find that increasingly my life is like this. I’m always elsewhere. Commitments, deadlines and responsibilities — both personal and professional — are always pulling me forward, out of the here and now and into the there and then. Most folks I know are like this, too. I think the logic is that if we stay connected to everything and everybody, we’ll be better able to manage our time and our lives. This is the same logic that convinces us that multitasking is smart and efficient. Frankly, while I can see that we have little choice but to adopt this thinking, I’m not sure it actually works in the way we’d like.

Still, I’m seriously considering an upgrade to a smart phone and a data plan, so I can have  web, email, and phone all bundled into a device that I never leave home without. And then, of course, I’ll add Facebook and Twitter apps, and I’ll be set. I’ll have it all mastered. I’ll be cool, calm, and connected. And finally … FINALLY… I’ll be —

Uh-oh, phone’s ringing. Gotta go.

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You know my town, right? At least you know one like it, don’t you? Population right around 40,000. Nice little downtown filled with a pretty fair number of mom and pop shops and an equally (un?)fair number of empty storefronts. Big box stores and lifestyle malls creeping up around the fringes. Solid middle class population. You know the town I mean?

If you do, then maybe you’d be as surprised as I was to see a man standing on a corner near the grocery store just a block or so from my office holding up a hand-lettered cardboard sign that said “No Food.”

No food? Huh? That’s not really the kind of thing that happens in these kind of towns, is it? For a moment, I felt this dread that something terrible — something that’s only been happening on the fringes of my world — had finally arrived. I began to see him as a sort of omen of what’s surely to come.

Am I wrong? I hope so, but it’s getting harder and harder to remain optimistic these days. Every day, we’re all barraged by the bleak news — jobs lost, businesses in danger or gone under, credit markets still in chaos. And yet …

Most everyone I know gets up and goes to work every morning. Most everyone I know is paying their bills, raising their kids, finding ways to get by. That’s what my town is like … so far.

I spoke to a friend who sells cars today. His dealership has already laid off more than fifty people, and will quite likely lay off more before it’s all said and done. And, since mom and pop shops everywhere have a hard time competing with always-low-prices-always-open big box stores, towns like ours have grown accustomed to a few empty storefronts downtown. But in just the last week, two national chains — one a restaurant, one a department store — announced that they can no longer afford to do business here.

But what’s even more telling than what is is what people believe could be. Rumors have already begun taking hold in the hallways of the office buildings, in the aisles of the grocery store, in the fellowship halls of churches. This store is closing. That company is going belly-up. That division of the university — you know, the one out by the airport — is cutting half its workforce.

These rumors have no corroboration and no identifiable source, and yet, in this climate, we feel compelled to ask more questions, to see if we can confirm or refute them. And so we ask around. We discuss it with others, and they discuss it with others and so on and so on until these dark rumors swirl around our town just like the wind that rushes down from Brush Mountain, bringing cold northern air, and forcing the man on the corner to clutch his jacket more tightly around his neck with one hand while his hand-lettered sign bends and buckles in the other.

You know my town, right?

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I’ve just listened to a BBC podcast on language and translation that featured, among much else, a recording of a Ghanian poet reading his work in his native dialect. Amazing, really, how when you strip away meaning, you can hear the music of language so much more clearly. It was like a song, and even the best of translations aren’t likely to be able to recreate that.

I’ve often thought of what I do as something akin to translation. Many years ago, when I was first cutting my teeth in the business of writing, I took on a freelance job for a company that made software that analyzed stock on hand and optimized supply lines and production processes. Let me remind you — I was an English major. These are not concepts that I had ever once thought about. I met with the company owners and they handed me a sheaf of documents, each one more impenetrable than the next. They called this stuff “All You’ll Need to Know.”

It was ghastly — single-spaced, jargon-ridden, poorly punctuated, footnoted, chart-laden. And what they wanted was ad copy. Clean, solid ad copy.

I attacked “All You’ll Need to Know” with gusto, but it did not give up its secrets easily. In fact, I don’t think it gave them up at all. I had to beat them out of it. I went at the pile a second time, pulling a few key documents that seemed to hold the kernel of what this software did. I focused on these, did a couple of scrap paper diagrams — work flows, terminology, that sort of thing — and slowly, a big-picture understanding began to emerge. I framed that understanding in a creative concept that I thought illustrated the idea well enough, and — bang — all done. The clients loved it, though they subsequently butchered it with a design from a local freelance designer that — even now — is too painful for me to think about.

That may have been the first time that I understood how this process of translation works. These were men who knew their product backwards and forwards, inside and outside, up and down. They could describe in the most minute level of detail how it did what it did. But they could not speak plainly of its purpose. They could not boast of its benefits. They could not make it understandable to those who might buy it. In the end, that’s what they paid me for, though, like the design, my compensation for the job that is equally painful for me to think about.

Over the years, I’ve been struck by how often I feel like a translator. Sometimes I translate jargon. Sometimes I translate bombast. Sometimes I simply capture a feeling that someone wants to express, but cannot. All of this is what I do, and if I do it well, I get the satisfaction of having someone say “That’s exactly what I meant.”

I could go on, but I think that’s “All You’ll Need to Know.”

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It’s the same phenomenon each year. As Christmas draws near, cardboard boxes begin appearing on our front porch. The kids have been warned that these are “nunyers,” as in “none of your business,” so they stifle their normal curiosity and leave them for my wife or me to gather up. This year is a bit different, however, at least in the number of boxes. We’ve never been much on spending a lot of money on Christmas — we prefer to give away more — but even we’re cutting back, as I suspect most folks are. So, as a result, fewer boxes.

Hold that thought for a minute.

Having grown up without much, cutting back seems pretty normal to me. Don’t get me wrong — we weren’t impoverished. My father did pretty well for country boy with no education beyond his small high school. But it wasn’t exactly bountiful, and I think my sister and I both grew up having learned, at the very least, not to covet what others had.

But we also grew up in a company town, or an industry town anyway. My father was one of a generation of young men from the south who made their way up Route 23 through Kentucky to jobs in the then-booming steel belt, and as his employer began to sputter and gasp, things got pretty tight. I remember when foreign cars, and the foreign steel from which they were made, were seen as a real threat to every family I knew. One popular bumper sticker summed it the sentiment held by many: Like your Japanese car? Go park it in Tokyo!

There’s a kind of we’re -all-in-this-together mentality in such places, largely because the effects of national trends — in this case, the rise in popularity (and affordability) of imported cars — wasn’t just a national news headline. It was a trend which meant nearly every family on my block, in my town, in the region was looking at the possibility of layoffs, plant closings, and less and less bounty for all.

Now, back to the boxes. I heard a report on NPR yesterday about the timber business in the Pacific Northwest and the troubles they’re facing. These troubles stem from a slowdown in the housing market. That much is obvious. But there’s more to it than that. They’re also suffering because of a general slowdown in the consumer market. Why? Because when more and more folks cut back on consumer spending, fewer goods are being packed and shipped. And when fewer and fewer goods are being packed and shipped, less and less cardboard is being used. And when less and less cardboard is being used, demand for the raw materials that comprise it drops. And where does the raw material for that cardboard come from? Well, some it comes from small timber towns in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re getting pinched.

Am I suggesting we all do our part by making more Amazon orders so we get more and more of those smiley boxes on our front stoops? Well, no, not really. But as I’ve written about before, it’s worthwhile to remember that while much of this economic news may remain on the fringes of our day to day lives, it’s having a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of people in ways that are pretty hard to imagine. Unless, of course, you work in the timber business … or the construction business … or the auto business … or the retail business … or … well, you get the idea. The list is growing.

And it’s not too much of a stretch to see that we’re all on it in one way or another.

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